There is an old saying that sometimes a person “can’t see the forest for the trees.” The idea is that sometimes we become so wrapped up in one thing that we lose sight of the larger picture. Sometimes this can be humorous. So on a TV show you may see a man who is obsessed with getting his tie knotted just so. Hence, he spends an inordinate amount of time in front of the mirror until the tie is perfect and he has achieved that small crease just below the knot. Satisfied that he now looks good, he walks out of the house totally oblivious to the fact that his pants have a big rip right on his backside!
Viewed from the right angle, something like this has happened when it comes to Mark 3. Many people have walked away from this chapter fretting to the depths of their soul the so-called “unpardonable sin.” We worry what the precise contours of that sin may be. We worry that someone we know may have been guilty of it. We worry that we may have accidentally committed this very sin. So in the past we preachers have tried to address this matter very often through the traditional line, “If you are worried about this sin, then you didn’t commit it.” Others of us have suggested that this most perilous of sins isn’t a one-time lapse. For the consequences to be this eternally dire, the person in question must be a hardcore anti-God figure who never accepts the Lord’s work even for a moment.
But however we deal with this pastorally and theologically as preachers, the point is that we need to remember that many people have become obsessed with this particular part of the chapter very nearly to the exclusion of all else. Hence, what we sometimes come close to forgetting is that there are two rejections of Jesus in Mark 3. But when we become obsessed with the ins and outs of the unpardonable sin, we tend to ignore the fact that Mark 3 shows us also another unhappy way to view Jesus and that we need to avoid that attitude, too. To see this other rejection, we need to look at Jesus’ family and the role it plays here.
Jesus’ mother and brothers have apparently not yet become members of Jesus’ band of disciples. They have been following Jesus in a literal sense but not in the more important sense of discipleship—they are more stalking him to figure out what is going on than following to learn from his teachings. But the result of that kind of following is a dire conclusion: Jesus is off his rocker! He has become something of a family embarrassment, a public spectacle that they are eager to whisk out of sight. They want to take Jesus home, put him to bed, keep him quiet for a while, and then see if all this talk about casting out demons and the kingdom of his Father abates.
As some commentators have pointed out, it appears that it was particularly Jesus’ engagement with the demonic that was causing Mary and Jesus’ brothers to arch their eyebrows the sharpest. It all seemed a little bizarre to them. In verse 21 They say literally that they had to get him on home because Jesus was exeste, a word meaning to stand outside of yourself. Even today we may refer to a person who is an emotional wreck as being “beside himself” with grief. The idea is that someone has taken leave of his senses (or his senses have taken leave of him) and so what remains for the time being is a person whose emotions are unchecked and unregulated. This is the family’s assessment of Jesus.
Apparently all Jesus’ talk about invisible kingdoms of God and the casting out of demons led members of his own family to the conclusion that Jesus was seeing things that no one else could see and the reason was simple: he was out of his everloving mind!
We probably can give the family a break—no one in history, after all, had ever before had to deal with having the Son of God as a close family member. Still, to look at Jesus and chalk up his words as delusional, incorrect, incoherent—that is a pretty bad thing to do, too. It’s maybe not an unpardonable sin but it may well be a sin in which we sometimes participate Whenever we pick and choose from among our Savior’s words, deciding on our own which to take seriously and which to chalk up as no more than metaphor or something that doesn’t apply to us in the modern age, aren’t we essentially saying that sometimes Jesus said things that no one can take seriously? Mark 3 shows us that there is indeed more than one way to reject Jesus. We do well to pay attention to the lesser one sometimes and not let undue worries about the big one eclipse this for us.
How easily we preachers can sometimes miss the wider context in our narrow focus on the lection at hand. In the case of this passage in Mark 3, it is vital to notice the frame Mark placed around this incident (Mark does this a lot, after all). Just prior to this in Mark 3:13-19, we find Jesus appointing the twelve disciples as Apostles, as the “sent ones” who would one day become his heralds in bringing the gospel to the world. Then, immediately following this incident, we encounter the well-known “Parable of the Sower” in Mark 4 that reminds us that the seed of the gospel will inevitably fall on many kinds of soil, the majority of which (alas) will prove to be unreceptive to the subsequent growth and flourishing of that seed. Plunked down in between those two incidents is this scene of terrible rejection of Jesus by both his family and, less surprisingly, by the religious leaders. If the disciples-cum-apostles want a preview of what will face them in the future as they go forth to sow the seed of the gospel, they need look no further than how their Lord and Master is treated here! We ought expect no less today.
The key question in Mark 3 is easy to spy: what is the so-called unpardonable sin? Apparently it has to do with morally inverting the world to the point where darkness is light and light darkness. And that is no run-of-the-mill sin. You do not live this way and talk this way and view the world this way due to some little mistake or a momentary lapse of judgment.
What can be done for people who insist on looking at the world that way? This is the essence of blasphemy. Blasphemy is at bottom a form of theft. Blasphemers steal holy language and symbols, associate them then with ugly and awful things, and so rob God of the chance to get through to us via his chosen form of revelation. So if the KKK can take the symbol of the cross and transform it into a symbol of racial hatred instead of what it really is (namely, a sign of reconciliation among all races and between God and the entire world), then God loses a key piece of how he wants to convey his love to us.
Maybe that is why this “sin” is unpardonable: the ones who need the grace that could pardon it reject that same grace as sheer poison. And what can be done for one such as that?
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 10, 2018
Mark 3:20-35 Commentary